Science for Change vs Science for ‘Fun’

Should South Africa invest in fundamental research?

We all want to save the world or at least have a positive impact on our communities. This is evident even when you ask a child from kindergarten what they want to be when they’re older, most would answer: a doctor, a police officer, or lawyer. Whenever I give talks at public outreach events I always get this question: “How does astronomy advance our lives?”. Frankly, I haven’t figured out how to successfully tackle it. This question always haunts me, especially when I meet with colleagues from the health sciences. A staff member in my department once said “Your kind of research is a hobby for rich people.”, I am certain that many people share the same sentiments.

Shouldn’t I be using my big brains for the betterment of humankind?

Fig3South Africa’s unemployment rate is currently around 29% with youth unemployment at 58.2%. We have the highest inequality index in the world, our public health institutes are deteriorating, and the condition of schools in the rural areas is appalling. With all these issues we are facing which threaten basic human rights, should South African scientists spend their time trying to figure out what dark energy is? Should the government pour funds into fundamental research?

    Fundamental research is driven by curiosity and desire to expand knowledge in a specific research area. Applied research, on the other hand, aims to solve specific problems and its findings have immediate practical implications. The recent white paper on science, technology and innovation maps out the direction that the Department of Science and Innovation will embark on in the years to come. The core emphasis of the white paper is inclusivity, transformation and partnerships. It is also strongly aligned with the national development goals and the sustainable development goals.

Fig2

Although there is a strong pull towards applied research, the government still aims to fund and support fundamental research. In spite of the fact that applied research has an immediate impact, curiosity-driven research is at the core of many medical breakthroughs and technology advancement. The fruits of scientific and technological development in astronomy, especially in optics and electronics, are evident across various fields including aerospace and medicine.

    Nobel Laureate and radio astronomer Martin Ryle developed the technique of aperture synthesis which was later transferred to the medical field. This technology is now used in computerised tomography (CAT scanners), magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography and many other medical imaging tools. These tools have revolutionised the diagnosis of brain tumours, chronic changes in lung tissue and coronary artery disease.

    Laser physics is another archetypal example of how a discovery in basic physics led to a world-changing invention. Lasers (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) would never have been developed without a profound understanding of the quantum theory. The principle behind the laser goes back to the world’s most famous physicist, Albert Einstein, who in 1917 proposed a theory of stimulated light emission. Lasers are now used in medicine for various purposes including cancer treatment. They are also used in communications and industry to send information over long distances (optical fibres), to make precise trimmings, etc.

     Fig1The above examples prove that fundamental and applied research have a synergistic relationship. Fundamental research is essential for the further development of applied research. My final thought is that we should not abandon fundamental research. It is through these crazy, sometimes wild, ideas that we will be able to make groundbreaking discoveries that will advance humankind. I’m probably that cat that was killed by curiosity and now in another life, I still have not given it up!

 

 

Find what fuels your passion

Are you brave enough to reach for the stars?

My full name is Sinenhlanhla Precious Sikhosana, born in Harding south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. My family consists of my grandmother, mother, three siblings, and many cousins. My inquisitive mind and passion for problem-solving led me to the science field at a very young age. However, it was only in my matric year (when I attended the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) career week at UKZN) that I was exposed to career opportunities in astrophysics. Postgraduate students passionately shared their research and how they go about solving the mysteries of the universe; I was instantly sold.

Astro-Lady
Astro-lady

I am currently studying towards a PhD in Applied Mathematics with a research focus in Astrophysics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. My research involves understanding high-energy particle physics on the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe (galaxy clusters).

My academic journey, like any other, has been filled with a lot of obstacles but also equally numerous triumphs. In my undergraduate years, I obtained the SKA Africa (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) scholarship and the top 10 African females award at the college for 3 years. I have also received numerous awards in my postgrad, with the 2019 highlights being; receiving the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science research grant and attending the 69th Nobel Laureate Meeting at Lindau.

With all these achievements one would think I would be very confident in my abilities, but that was not the case. Due to the unfamiliar surroundings and lack of representations, I suffered from the ‘imposter syndrome’, the feeling of not belonging. I had to fight hard mentally to convince myself that yes, I am intelligent enough and I belong. The advantage is that now I get to pave the way for younger aspiring female scientist, to make their journey less uphill than mine was.

Now that the formalities are out of the way, let me let you in on what fuels my passion. I believe that without educational knowledge one can never experience true liberation. It is because of this belief that I spend most of my time outside of academia participating in educational outreach programmes. I mainly give talks at high schools and career exhibitions. I do this to encourage students to pursue tertiary studies and to also make them aware that science no longer has the face it used to have centuries ago. One does not need to be a male with crazy hair and a lab coat to do science. When I do get the opportunity to speak to young girls, I make it a point to be as feminine and bubbly as I can be (be myself basically), because I want to show them that science is for them and that science is fun and trendy too!

OutreachWhen I finally attain that ‘Dr’ tittle, I would like to establish a mentorship programme that guides young girls that are science enthusiasts. I have also personally encountered that no matter how brilliant your science is unless communicated effectively, it will never make a great impact. This led me to the idea of technical science writing retreats for postgrad students; it is a dream I intend to fulfil in the near future.